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Venture philanthropy

In Kenya, SMSes save lives

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MOBILE ASSISTANCE: Aggrey Otieno's NGO will train birth attendants to recognise delivery complications and alert staff at a nearby medical centre by sending text messages

Korogocho, Nairobi's fourth largest slum, has the dubious distinction of being the worst place to give birth in East Africa. The maternal mortality rate is roughly 700 deaths for every 100, 000 live births. Compare this to India's 220, which is a dismal figure in itself, and you'll get the picture. One of the reasons for this high rate is that most pregnant women in Kenya deliver at home without a doctor at hand. Complications during delivery result in deaths. Thirty-three-year-old Aggrey Otieno, who was born in Korogocho and studied in the US, is determined to use technology to make a difference.

His solution: build a telemedicine centre at Korogocho with a 24x7 on-call doctor and van. He will train birth attendants to recognise delivery complications and alert staff at the centre by sending text messages. The doctors can give instant medical advice and, if needed, dispatch a van to get the woman to the centre. "Sometimes all that is needed is transport to take them to the nearest health centre, " he says.

It is this initiative that has bagged him this year's Rolex Award for Enterprise along with four other social entrepreneurs, all of whom will be awarded at a ceremony in Delhi. The award money is 100, 000 Swiss francs.

So why is Rolex, one of the biggest luxury brands in the world, associated with an initiative to reduce maternal deaths? Rebecca Irvin, head of philanthropy, Rolex, says that these awards are an attempt at venture philanthropy. "We like to support social enterprise, especially those that are run with a business model. "

Venture philanthropy, which involves building the capacity of non-profit organisations so they can deliver their programmes and services to more people, has changed the business of giving. Companies no longer just want to write cheques but want to make sure that the money is making a difference.

Take the work of Mark Kendall, another Rolex laureate. He has developed Nanopatch, a syringe-less method of vaccination so that infections spread via used syringes can be reduced. According to the WHO, unsafe injections cause an estimated 13 lakh early deaths every year. Kendall, a bio-engineer who works at the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland, Australia, studied mechanical properties of the skin for 14 years and came up with a contraption that directly delivers the vaccine onto a superficial layer of the skin which is teeming with immune cells that defend the body against infections and disease. It's pain-free and blood-less. Kendall has successfully tested Nanopatch on mice in lab conditions and now wants to test its feasibility in the developing world where every year lakhs of people get infected by used syringes. With the grant from Rolex, Kendall wants to begin a mock trial using Nanopatches without vaccine in Papua New Guinea.

The other winners of the award this year are Bolivian conservationist Erica Cuellar, American marine biologist Barbara Block and Sergei Bereznuk, a tiger conservationist in Russian Far East. Block has been electronically tagging Pacific predators - sharks, tunas, whales and turtles - on the West coast of the US to study them. With the money from Rolex she wants to create a network of "predator cafes" where these animals can be monitored and studied.

Bereznuk, on the other hand, is taking care of a land predator - the Amur tiger. He has developed a special software to monitor poaching pressures and anti-poaching patrol quality.

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